Austin Access Television and Austin Music Network In Jeopardy?

This week, Austin Community Television’s funding is under attack from the Texas Legislature. Under HB 3179 which may go into effect September 1st, funding for all public access television in Austin will be cut off. Under a clause added to a PUC bill by State Rep. Phil King, “HB 3179, would allow SBC and Verizon Communications Inc. to get a single statewide franchise for their planned Internet-based television service, avoiding local agreements. Cable companies could cancel local franchise agreements, but would have to pay a fee. Texas cities oppose the bill, which would cost them money and remove their authority over cable service standards.”

Stefan Wray emailed the ACTVProducers Yahoo group with the news yesterday.

I attended a session today on community technology where someone from the Consumers Union and from the City reported on developments at the state legislature regarding HB 3179 – the bill that will effectively cut off funding for public access TV in Austin.

That bill in the Senate has been attached as an amendment to a PUC bill and will go through the Senate without a hearing. The opinion of both of these people is that the HB 3179 is likely to pass and that it would go into effect Sept. 1.

So, if it passes, which now seems likely according to them, it means that the City can’t collect the Franchise fee from Time Warner and the City would have to take money out of the general fund to allocate for public accesss TV, something the City Council would be hard pressed to do.

So, it’s a bleak prognosis. We might need to start thinking of this as the last summer of public access TV on 10, 11, and 16 in Austin.

There is still some hope, according to this post on Yahoo Groups by Sue Cole. It is important to contact your state representative to ask them to vote against this bill.

Some History

At the moment, the Austin Music Network continues in suspended animation. It is due to be taken over by a consortium called Austin Music Partners, headed by Christine Wodlinger. The original broadside in the latest attacks against the network began in February 2004, when Austin Mayor Will Wynn attacked the network for airing obscene videos. Here’s what I posted about it on my site at the time:

To entice Time Warner Cable into taking over the channel, Wynn is playing with the idea of consolidating a couple of underused public access channels, including the ones that broadcast city and county government meetings.

Time Warner could then place commercial programming on those channels.Hopefully, Austin Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken wouldn’t be putting up Austin Community Access channels on the chopping block to make way for commercial programming. Despite the underuse of channels, those channels are there so that the community can have involvement with their local television.

Another factor in Wynn’s decision to pursue other options to the Austin Music Network are complaints he’s received about obscenity. Wynn said he’s heard complaints of obscene videos being played at night, specifically Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video that aired several times in January (2004). In a letter (current AMN head Louis) Meyers sent to the city, he vowed to take steps to prevent something like that from happening again.

“This video should have never been played on the Austin music network,” the letter says. “It is not our policy to play any video even remotely close to this kind of smut.”

The network does, however, post disclaimers about content broadcast after 10 p.m. So now we have Wynn attacking the network due to concerns about decency.

But the kicker, and perhaps the real reason behind Wynn’s vendetta against the network may be an unsolicited ad the Austin Music Network ran encouraging people to register to vote. (The network originally courted controversy) after the airing of a “register to vote” public service announcement that featured headshots of President Bush and Gov. Rick Perry along with Wynn and McCracken — again the only ones who voted to cut the network’s funding — and the words “You can make a difference.”

Wynn inquired into the origins of the announcement and whether any city funds were used to pay for it. “The mayor’s definitely out to get us,” Meyers said. “He thinks we’re running an anti-Will Wynn ad.” Meyers said the announcement was intended to be political only in that it was encouraging people to vote. He said that although network equipment was used to film the spot, it was not paid for out of the budget or done on the city’s time. Wynn called the announcement an “adolescent political statement” and said it “speaks for itself.”

The next step in the broadsides against the network came in the form of privatization talks the city had with Time Warner Cable. Wynn and the city aimed to sanitize and to remove the funkiness (and weirdness?) of the former network to convert it into a “arts-and-entertainment version of (Time Warner’s local news network) News 8 Austin.” Since the network is funded by Austin’s hotel/motel bed tax, the powers that be would like the network to be more of a video brochure (like Austin needs more publicity) than a warts-and-all airing of Austin music’s eccentricities. Just as developers have gutted local buildings to turn them into multi-story hotels and condominiums designed for high income residents (i.e. “Smart Growth”), the mayor and the city aimed to gut the local cable airwaves to produce an Austin music video brochure.

In June of 2004, AMN’s Louis Meyers and Austin Music Partners’ (the group the city had picked to head the new video brochure network) Connie Wodlinger had reached a compromise and agreed to come up with a plan for the future of the network (whose contract was due to expire in September 2004). Included in the new plans would be the fate of the cable access channels under ACTV.

By July, plans were in place for AMN to be folded into a new public access channel called Education and Arts TV (eaTV), one of the new stations planned for ACTV. In August, AMN reached an agreement for ACTV to take over AMN and its extensive Austin music archives and distribute them over three reorganized channels. According to the Chronicle’s TCB column, “Channel 10 (called Free TV) would be reserved for general public-access use, with Channel 11 featuring inspirational programming and Channel 16 becoming the education, arts, and music-oriented eaTV.”. Local political (and ACTV) commentator Alex Jones likened the events to a corporate takeover, with Austin “going from three access channels to one, and ACTV (being required to) change its non-commercial, free speech charter.”

With the city having problems with its budget (and the fact that it had spent “$4.8 million over the past 10 years” on AMN), it welcomed with open arms an influx of money and management from the corporate partners (including Time Warner Cable) of AMP. On September 30, 2004, last day of the AMN contract, the city council voted to allow AMP to take over AMN channel 15. AMP said it planned to spend $25 million over five years on the new network (to be called ATX) and to expand coverage into communities like San Marcos, Smithville and Lockhart.

Until AMP takes over the AMN sometime this year, ACTV has been running the network. AMN head Louis Meyers floated the idea to City Council of rolling AMN and its production resources into the new eaTV on a part-time basis. This roiled many current ACTV producers (who considered legal action), as the freedom and free-form nature of one of the country’s oldest community access networks has been jeopardized by the game of television musical chairs instigated by the AMN/AMP shuffle. The Chronicle mentions that the non-commercial nature of eaTV could be compromised as well, since Meyers and board member Jonathan Clark have proposed it be run as “a ‘semi-commercial’ channel with corporate sponsorship that would also be marketed to other cities.”

In all the changes, the end result could be less freedom for both ACTV and AMN. The diversity of acts now featured on AMN may be compromised as whatever new network emerges from AMP may focus on a myopic vision of what Austin music is (think KGSR-type “adult alternative,” Stevie Ray Vaughan-type blues cliches and CMT-style country music). As noted in this Daily Texan article, AMN has functioned as another outlet for the eclectic nature of Austin music and its history and has aired videos from moderately famous Austin artists like Spoon, Doug Sahm, Alejandro Escovedo, … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Townes Van Zandt as well as airing shows from many current unknown Austin bands who otherwise might not be seen.

But some people, like AMN’s current music director Clay Fain, are skeptical about the access artists would have with the proposed private music channel.

“If we’re to not make it through this whole mess, it’s likely that another network will emerge, but the access will be harder,” he said. “There will be less opportunity given to people who really need it and more of a place to showcase established acts.”

In fact, in the wake of all these changes, AMN (which doesn’t exclusively air Austin or Texas bands) as its been run in the last two years, has emerged from the shadow of former mismanagement by people like boondoggler Rick Melchior to become an artistic success in its own right. Last year, it won two “Best of Austin” awards from the Austin Chronicle, a Readers’ Award for Best Local TV Programming and a Critics’ Award for Best High School TV Show for Hi-Fi High School, a show produced by McCallum High School students that airs at 5pm every weekday.

Hi-Fi High School began when the host of AMN’s show “Frankie Goes to High School” graduated and a summer worker/McCallum student named Sam took over hosting. The television production class at McCallum soon took the show over, and the show became the only student-produced broadcast television show in Texas. Could something like this happen at whatever form the new ATX network under Wodlinger takes this summer? It’s quite doubtful.

Just like the city leaders bulldozed the Liberty Lunch to make way for a boutique downtown lifestyle for rich emigrants from Dallas, Houston, California and New York, it has steamrolled over parts of Austin television to make way for new corporate parents.

2005 has not seen things get any less controversial for Austin’s beleaguered independent channels. Scandal hit ACTV’s parent, the Austin Community Access Center, in January when it was found that it had missing operating funds in its bank account, reducing it from $35,000 a few years before to $3,000. ACAC Executive Director John Villareal was suspended, and later board member Henry Calderon, whose daughter had been a part-time accountant (in violation of ACAC anti-nepotism rules), resigned. In the meantime, ACAC chair Ron Frank made the rounds as a motivational speaker for no less than Time Warner Cable itself (something akin to ethically challenged House speaker Tom DeLay hosting corporate donors on a private boat).

So the question becomes, who were the architects of the ultimate fate of Austin’s access channels and AMN? This is not to suggest that there was some master planners, but perhaps there were some behind-the-scenes conversations that led to the way that things played out last year for the networks. The ideas for segregating the freeform access programs and AMN to from three original networks to channel 10 couldn’t have emerged from the ether.

Some would venture that the city has been overly charitable in forking out almost $5 million in 10 years for a channel like AMN that was badly mismanaged in the hands of people like Melchior. As Mike Clark-Madison writes in the Chronicle:

ACTV is more than three decades old

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